Editorial: How The Multiverse Helps Spider-Man Find His Way Home
by Dan Marcus
December 22, 2021
"Where there is great power, there is great responsibility…" The Multiverse is real. In Spider-Man: No Way Home, playing in theaters worldwide, the Multiverse finally reveals itself in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tom Holland's Spider-Man faces his most nefarious threats yet in the third chapter of this trilogy for this popular webslinger. What's more is that while No Way Home pays homage to the last three cinematic incarnations of the superhero, it also finally allows Holland's Peter Parker to become the Spider-Man we know & love. Like any good Spider-Man story, that means with great power comes great responsibility to tell a gripping story full of sacrifice and hard choices. Writer's Note: This contains major spoilers for Spider-Man: No Way Home. If you haven't seen it yet and prefer to hold on, read no further.
No Way Home is a Multiverse story done right. I would be remiss if I didn't talk about the other Spidey Multiverse story, 2018's Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse movie - arguably the true precursor to No Way Home. With Into the Spider-Verse, filmmakers Phil Lord, Peter Ramsay, Rodney Rothman, Bob Persichetti told an emotional origin story featuring Brooklynite Miles Morales and his journey to become Spider-Man. In this origin tale, Morales comes across multiple other versions of Spider-Man after Kingpin cracks open the Multiverse, who all help him along his path to become his own iteration of the famous webslinger.
It's a beautiful and poignant film, and the success of Into the Spider-Verse undoubtedly set the stage for No Way Home. What No Way Home understands is that in order for the Multiverse to actually work within the confines of a standalone Spider-Man story, it has to enhance what came before. Fortunately, No Way Home builds upon the story threads of the last couple standalone Tom Holland Spider-Man movies. As No Way Home begins, we pick up right after Spider-Man: Far From Home with the revelation thanks to Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. The entire world knows Peter's secret identity now, and in typical Spider-Man fashion, it makes life very difficult for literally everyone that Peter cares about.
This creates a somewhat selfish (but mostly understandable) desire within Peter, who turns to Doctor Strange to help him cast a spell that will allow everyone to forget that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. Of course, the spell goes terribly wrong, and it opens the doors of the Multiverse. All kinds of nefarious characters from the past start popping up in this Peter's universe, such as Alfred Molina as Doc Ock, Willem Dafoe as Green Goblin, and Jamie Foxx as Electro. Now, Peter must face the consequences of his actions, with the help of his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) by his side.
This botched spell also creates a classic Spider-Man conflict: most of those dangerous bad guys that Peter faces will inevitably die if they are sent back to their own universes to meet their fate. While the first act of No Way Home is a little rough in how it arrives at this conflict (while conveniently sidestepping Peter's legal troubles), this conflict is pivotal in Peter's personal development. Almost every classic Spider-Man story deals with Peter having a difficult choice to face, then dealing with the consequences of that choice. It's the choices that make the hero, and one could argue Homecoming and Far From Home never quite gave Peter such a difficult, defining choice before this.
It's those difficult, defining choices that also make Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 such a classic Spider-Man story, echoing the iconic Spider-Man: No More from the comics where Peter literally gives up being Spider-Man so he can focus on having a happy, normal life. These difficult choices are integral to the Spider-Man character. It also makes perfect sense that Peter would choose to help these villains rather than allow them to be sent back to their universes to die. No Way Home's Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) brilliantly sets up this conflict within Peter, telling him that "This is what we do, we help people."
In this (Spidey) sense, Spider-Man: No Way Home does what a good Multiverse story is supposed to do – which is to expand and enrich the characters, plot threads, and to further along the central story. It also does this while paying homage to three different incarnations of big screen Spider-Man. However, instead of fan service that feels perfunctory or trite, No Way Home uses the addition of other characters from different Spidey universes to help Tom Holland's Peter realize that he must become the Spider-Man he needs to be.
If you're reading this far in, then you've seen the movie already, and therefore you know by now that Andrew Garfield's Spider-Man and Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man appear in No Way Home. At first, I was initially worried that Garfield and Maguire's appearances would only be cameos or they would barely appear in the third act to help Tom Holland's Spider-Man fend off against the foes from their own universes. While this does happen, Garfield and Maguire are actually introduced much earlier in the movie than I had anticipated, and the writers and filmmakers knew exactly how to incorporate them into this particular story.
In perhaps my favorite scene of the entire film, Peter's friends MJ and Ned and the other Peters (Garfield & Maguire) help console Peter after the loss of Aunt May. Garfield's Peter and Maguire's Peter know what real loss is, as they both had to lose people close to them. The brilliance of No Way Home is that it absolutely builds upon these characters from the last time we saw them, and it all leads to a perfect scene where Tom's Peter can receive advice from the other Spider-Men. What makes the scene even more special is the way it is deftly handled, where Garfield's Peter and Maguire's Peter don't automatically lecture Holland's Peter on what the right thing to do is, but through their shared grief they understand what this pain means for him. It's an absolutely beautiful scene, and you could argue without the appearance of Garfield and Maguire it would have been perhaps impossible for Tom's Peter to work through his grief the way he does.
No Way Home also provides closure for not only Tom Holland's incarnation of the character in his three movies (so far), but for Andrew Garfield's version of Spider-Man, too. When we last saw Garfield's Spider-Man in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 he was grieving the loss of his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). Since we never got to see a third installment in that series, we never saw how Peter handled that grief or what he did after the tragic loss of Gwen. No Way Home allows for a proper passage of time for both Garfield and Maguire's versions of Peter since we last saw them, and we learn that Garfield's Peter went through a very dark time after losing Gwen.
You could tell Garfield's Peter doesn't want that for Tom, and it is absolutely heartbreaking and moving. What makes Garfield's inclusion hit home even more is during the climax when Zendaya's MJ falls from the Statue of Liberty and Tom's Spider-Man can't save her, but Garfield's Spider-Man does. It's a wonderful pay-off that was literally seven years in the making, and it shows that these writers (Erik Sommers & Chris McKenna) actually care about these characters. Yes, it is fan service, but when fan service furthers and enrichens the stories of our beloved characters, it makes it feel less like prerequisite service and more like loving adoration. Garfield's Peter is arguably better off than when we last saw him in Amazing Spider-Man 2, and the fact that No Way Home honors the other versions of Spider-Man is what makes it such a classic and moving Spider-Man story.
No Way Home doesn't just honor the other Spider-Men, it also honors the villains as well. We pick up right where some of these characters and their arcs left off in the other movies. No Way Home honors their storylines and expounds upon them, such as Alfred Molina's Doctor Octopus, aka Otto Octavius. When we last saw his Doc Ock (at the end of Spider-Man 2 in 2004), he was being manipulated by his broken inhibitor chip. When Tom's Spider-Man makes the choice to try and save these villains versus sending them to their inevitable death, he is able to repair Otto's inhibitor chip and free him. It silences the "voices" (i.e. the artificial intelligence of the tentacle arms) in his head, and he finally achieves peace. So when he teams up with the other Spider-Men to stop Green Goblin, Electro, The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), as well as Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), it is a payoff literally seventeen years in the making.
Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin is also given a fantastic role in this sequel as well. When we last saw him in 2002's Spider-Man, he was struggling with a schizoid personality where he was being manipulated by an evil, nefarious "Goblin" version of his personality thanks to his own botched formula. No Way Home actually makes this an important part of the story, where for a brief moment we think Norman wants to be cured, only for his "Goblin" persona to come lurching back with a vengeance. Dafoe is just excellent here. He could have simply collected his paycheck and phoned it in, but he's diabolical and truly frightening. He also hurts Tom Holland's Spider-Man in a truly awful way by killing Aunt May, arguably hurting Peter worse than any of the villains he's ever faced before, perhaps other than Josh Brolin's Thanos.
This is what makes Spider-Man: No Way Home such an effective Spider-Man story. It understands that at the core in order for this Peter Parker to learn and grow, he must first learn sacrifice and the consequences of his choices. No Way Home works not only as a marvelous Multiverse story, but it primarily works as a brilliant and successful standalone story for Holland's Spider-Man. It allows this Peter Parker to finally finish his own origin story and to become the Peter Parker from the comics by the end of the film. No Way Home is a faithful love letter to the legacy of Peter Parker and Spider-Man. It understands the essence of Peter Parker, the story of a young kid who has nobody, pushing people away out of fear for their safety, and can only rely on his wits and skills to save the day. The prior films in Tom Holland's trilogy never seemed to quite understand this, as Holland's Spider-Man had help from either Iron Man or was living in his shadow, but No Way Home finally allows Peter to be Spider-Man, to earn that title, and to learn what true sacrifice means, which is the heart of any good Spider-Man story.
While Spider-Man: No Way Home is chock full of Easter Eggs and references to other Spider-Man stories, villains and other supporting characters (and heroes), it doesn't forget its singular purpose: for Tom's Peter to finally learn that with with great power, must also come great responsibility.